Monday, April 27, 2015

This is the Way the World Ends

Some day, a generation or two from now, when some rare archival historian seeks to answer the question, 'What were they thinking?' or 'How could they (meaning us, our generation) have let this happen?', that archivist may happen on this article from today's Guardian, or they may follow the link back to this one, from the Times last fall. And they will have unearthed a significant piece of the story.

The major players are on stage: the EU Commission, headed by craven right-winger José Manuel Barroso, and supported by largely center-right parties with a working majority in the EU Parliament; the renewable energy lobby, led by the photovoltaic manufacturers and supported by a generation of environmental advocates; the nuclear power mega-corporations, responding to Germany's moratorium by trying to advance their 'clean' carbon-free technologies into the breach; and the European petroleum companies, now increasingly natural gas, i.e. fracking and Russian import companies, led by Shell apparently, and using the powerfully skeptic UK Tory government as its stalking horse.

At issue was the design of the EU's proposal for the UN's Paris conference this December, which many regard as the last-gasp hope for an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas this side of a catastrophic tipping point. The EU's proposal was regarded with more than interest by all parties, first because in the aggregate the EU is the world's largest economy, and also because, of the three large economies--the US and China are its only 'peers'--only the EU offers even modest support for the environmentalist view. That EU proposal was submitted to the UNFCCC in draft form this February, but its shape was largely determined last October (just before the Barroso Commission left office). In today's Guardian we read--courtesy of documents obtained by a freedom-of-information request--just how that agreement was shaped.

Setting aside many technicalities, the large question was: will the proposal set energy requirements for each of the 28 member states, mandating 28 initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and thus urge a massive shift over 15 years to renewables (or nuclear, or conservation, or some combination of these)? Or would it set an EU-wide goal without specifying any particular national responsibilities, thus urging ... inertia, finger-pointing, and a continuation of the status quo. Led by Shell and the oil lobby, the latter interests won, and did so with a two-pronged communications strategy: on the one hand, Shell declares itself to be wholly in favor of carbon transfer markets and other mechanisms to advance the renewable agenda (while it continues to open up arctic drilling sites, encourage fracking, and plans to enlarge the natural gas infrastructure). On the other, it promotes the flexibility of individual national sovereignties, as the UK insists, so that carbon-prone economies will be able to fend off any external pressures any time soon.

So that, my children, is how the world's largest economy, the 'progressive' one, managed to avoid taking the bold step that would have set a benchmark for the Paris conference. That is how other, less high-minded nations like Australia and Canada will be able to see themselves in line with international standards. That is how no-nothing politicians like Senator Imhofe will be able to argue that serious energy conversion in the US will put us at a disadvantage in global competition--and when he says it, the Chinese and Indian policy-makers smile and nod in agreement. In short, there are many players, many moments in this drama, many reasons for the impending failure in Paris, but the scene in Brussels last October, now laid out in documentary splendor by our tenacious friends at The Guardian, should be seen as a decisive one.

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